Black Beauty: A Lesson in Loss

Of the many snakes that I own currently, in all their great colors, sizes, and shapes, there's only one that holds the dubious honor of being a true ambassador for conservation. This, for one reason alone: she's the only species I have that is currently registered on endangered species lists, nationally or worldwide. Far poorer known than the rather similar looking indigo snakes (though often not much smaller), Tsela the Black Pine Snake is nonetheless threatened by the exact same dangers, on an even narrower range.

Black pines are large and powerfully built snakes, but poorly known.

The Black pine snake, Pituophis melanoleucus lodingi, is currently recognized as a subspecies of the common pine snake of which more familiar subspecies include the northern pine (which ranges up to New Jersey) and the Florida pine (as name may suggest mostly found through Florida), the latter of which the black pine intergrades with in the far western panhandle. This subspecies is limited to a very, very small region of southern Alabama and Mississippi, from just south of Meridian (MS) to the coast and from the Louisiana border and Brookhaven (MS) to Thomasville (AL), with the center of the range approximately over the De Soto National Forest. Even this general range is highly patchy, with known stable populations scattered within the National forest (where the last true stronghold exists) and a few other spots rather than spread throughout. This patchy distribution is partly due to the snake's habitat preferences, and even more so due to loss of that habitat.

Tsela is an inquisitive animal, though skittish. She's got a calm personality overall, but will bolt at sudden movements.

Black pine snakes are preferential inhabitants of the drier upland portions of what was once one of the most widespread and biologically diverse habitats in the United States: the longleaf pine forest (and in fact the genus name Pituophis, translates almost directly to "pine snake," owing to the habitat of several species). Lowland wetter portions of this habitat are often inhabited by similarly endangered carnivorous plants, while the drier, sandy higher areas host the ecological engineer the gopher tortoise and all the many species that depend on it. With over 95% of the longleaf ecosystem destroyed and much of the remainder damaged by fire suppression and other activities, undisturbed suitable patches that are either actively managed with fire or naturally experience clearing burns are few and far between and contribute heavily to the highly fractured range of this species of snake.

Black pines are built for digging; though occasionally encountered aboveground as they roam looking for food, more often this species utilizes gopher tortoise or rodent burrows for shelter and to search for prey, and their thick muscular body and enlarged rostral (nose) scale help them root through the sandy soils that typically are associated with longleaf forests and savannahs. They tend to prefer slightly denser undergrowth than the truly open, heavily fire-influenced areas, but anywhere with decent cover and access to underground recesses can provide habitat for this species. Gopher tortoise burrows and the old stump holes resulting from trees that have been burned or rotted away are both essential spaces both to escape the heat of summer as well as hibernate during the coldest parts of winter.

The powerful muscles of the back of the head and neck visible here are both useful for digging, as is that big scale on the tip of her nose. Her tongue (black like the rest of her) picks up scent particles like in other snakes and the two forks can tell her which direction to turn, toward or away from different smells.

Pine snakes breed in early to late spring, and then in mid to late summer hatch from fairly large eggs; while not the largest (that honor goes to the Louisiana pine), pine snakes in general tend to lay some of the largest eggs of all North American snakes, and the babies hatch out equally massive. While one may regularly see baby garter snakes that start out a mere 3 or 4 inches long, or corn and other ratsnakes that often start at 8-12 inches, a baby black pine emerges at anywhere from 14 inches to a foot and a half long and over an inch in diameter. At this age they also show their relationship to other pine snakes in their coloration; generally they don't start out black, but rather heavily patterned with a dark wash:

An example of the pattern Tsela had when she first arrived, nearly solid by her head but heavily blotched or banded toward her tail and lighter near the belly.arrived

From a different angle, showing the fading of pattern from tail to head.

Unfortunately with this sort of pattern one can see how people might confuse them with other dark but distinctively patterned snakes like cottonmouths; more on that trouble later though. As the snakes age, the pattern typically fades (especially the further away you get from the influence of Florida pine snake genes), until eventually they turn into what Tsela is now: a solid or nearly so black snake, with the barest hints of pattern along the belly near the tail and some white or brownish speckles elsewhere, particularly around the belly.

A belly shot, showing where the remainder of Tsela's pattern shows up: white speckling along the sides of the scutes and under her chin.

An adult black pine snake averages between 4-5 feet, with the current record at 89 inches or just under 7 and a half feet long. Males tend to be just slightly bigger than females (as is often the case in species where males will battle each other for territory and mating rights, a dance-like behavior often confused with mating itself), though considering she's only about 3 1/2 years old now and already at 5 feet Tsela has a fair chance of being one of those bigger females as she may continue growing significantly for another year or two, and slowly forever after that. Not particularly inclined to climb, these are heavy-set snakes and an adult can weigh a couple of pounds and be as thick around as your wrist, and possess very distinctive heavily keeled scales that stick up slightly from their body. Despite this keel the scales are otherwise quite glossy and reflective, and the belly scales especially so, making a clean snake in the light look like a myriad of sparkling black diamonds.

While the dorsal scales will shine and sparkle, the belly scales (especially in shed as she was here) can reflect an incredible rainbow iridescence.

These shiny but keeled scales set them apart from just about any other snake they might be confused with (indigos and racers are smooth as are kingsnakes, ratsnakes just barely keeled and not as "sparkly," and almost no shine at all on viper or water snake scales though they are also heavily keeled). These keels provide traction for moving through tight spaces in the dirt as well as greater protection from abrasion or the sharp weapons of predators. They also provide greater grip when dealing with prey.

As such a large snake, pines are not particularly limited when it comes to food, though unfortunately animals in the wild are not particularly well-studied in terms of diet and much of what is known is more extrapolated from other species/subspecies and what they willingly take in captivity. Juveniles may take on lizards, frogs, or young rodents, while adults will take the very largest lizards as well, but more primarily focus on large rodents and other mammals such as rabbits or moles, and will also take birds and their eggs. Entirely nonvenomous, these animals rely on constriction instead. Those heavy muscles don't just aid in digging, but also a rapid end to a struggle with prey, as tight coils cut off bloodflow and starve the heart and brain of oxygen, shutting the animal down faster than even suffocation would. In a way, merciful compared to what most people think happens (no, they don't break bones typically, and don't just strangle their food). And as with most snakes, prey is then swallowed whole.

A lot of coils, a lot of power; I rarely see Tsela actually constrict her prey though as she's fed entirely on frozen-thawed food that she is perfectly happy to just drag into her hide and eat straight away.

A preference for larger food items like big rodents and rabbits means that these snakes play a vital role in controlling the populations of such small mammals, and then in turn they are prey for larger mammals and birds of prey. The genus altogether, and especially the different common pine snake subspecies, have quite an impressive defense strategy too that I have only ever seen once from this girl. Vibrating tails are common (but also seen in many snake species worldwide), meant to drum up noise in dry leaf litter and startle predators, but if that doesn't work these snakes will also coil up and lift the front third or so of their body off the ground, puffing up and gaping their mouth open or drooping the sides, often sticking their tongue out at the same time. All that puffed up air is then forced out rapidly, vibrating the sides of their glottis (the tubular opening of their windpipe in their mouth) to make a loud, raspy, rattling or buzzing sound. They don't commonly actually bite (though it happens occasionally), but if the display isn't enough they will happily lunge at the threat as well in convincing bluff strikes. Here it's important to remind: this isn't aggression, but pure defense. The snake only wants the predator to go away and is acting out of fear of its life, with no real interest in harming the thing bothering it and no territorial claim being made.

Unfortunately they also fall victim to less standard threats quite often; the region of the world they live in is one particularly steeped in false beliefs about snakes (and wildlife in general) and black pines as mentioned earlier can sometimes be confused with many other species if you're not really familiar with them. Thus, in addition to habitat destruction the snakes themselves are at threat if they encounter people, who believe them to be venomous cottonmouths or rattlesnakes (particularly when hearing or seeing the defense display) or just hate snakes in general and kill any they see. The tendency of many big nonvenomous snakes in the area to eat bird eggs also means many will overlook their rodent-controlling habits and remove them violently out of fear that they will lose poorly protected poultry eggs and chicks. Not the snakes' fault that they put easy food out and didn't secure the enclosures, but they get the brunt of the anger in result. There is also the worry that Snake Fungal Disease (SFD) may affect these animals, as it continues to pop up in more species and become more widely recorded across the continent. Much like white-nose syndrome in bats, this snake-specialist fungus attacks the skin especially around the mouth and can contribute to winter die-off or pathogenic attack, and little is known about it and whether or not it can be effectively treated or controlled.

I, for one, can never fathom how anyone could fear or hate that face...

With so many threats to the survival of this species, one might wonder if anything is being done to protect it. The answer is: besides being federally listed as Threatened (not even endangered, just threatened) on the Endangered Species list, not a whole lot. Disappointing, really. Mississippi at least marks it as endangered, but Alabama where it is even rarer only keeps it as a "nongame animal" in protection status, both states preventing general collection without specific scientific permits, but the broader issue of habitat loss has barely been addressed and the social tendency of these regions makes it difficult to educate on the importance of all snakes including these, so progress toward stronger protections is slow. There is also trouble in the state of listing this species as federally threatened as well, in the aspect of establishing decent captive breeding populations and diverse lineages. While there are a handful of people that regularly breed this species in captivity (there's even a leucistic piebald morph that's now produced), without a federal commercial transport permit no one can transport them across state lines, and unlike indigo snakes where people frequently vie for those permits the black pine is seemingly ignored often, so interstate trade for different bloodlines is often infrequent, and the overall number of different bloodlines available in general trade is exceedingly small. Few if any zoological facilities have major breeding programs in place either, far eclipsed again for example by efforts made for the indigo snakes.

This poor trade of bloodlines and general attempts at bolstering the health of captive populations shows even in Tsela; I will never be able to use her to further breeding for this species, as she shows signs of inbreeding via kinks that have developed within her tail, a common signal in snakes and other animals that are bred too close to their relatives. Rather, Tsela can only be used at best for hybridization for straight pets, and far more so as an ambassador for her species and snakes in general.

There is some hope at least; in 2020 over 300,000 acres were declared set aside for protection within the range of this species, and attention is growing in the captive industry on them; hopefully more attention and lobbying government representatives might push the species for a stronger protection listings and kickstart more fervent conservation developments. Given the right push, that attention hopefully can also be turned more toward preservation of the species by collaboration between many breeders and even individual animal keepers, rather than just turning on another craze for having the cool, cheaper big black endangered pet snake. Pine snakes tend to breed quite easily in captivity once mature, and can lay multiple clutches in a year, and they mature fast.

If you want to keep a black pine snake, first keep in mind that aspect of access: if you are ever to move to another state, or if there are no breeders in your state and you want to get one elsewhere, you will have to apply for the commercial transport permit required and likely demonstrate a knowledge and ability to properly care for this species. An adult pine snake should have a cage that is a minimum of 3-5 feet long, bigger always better, with a deep substrate layer and multiple hides for burrowing and hiding. Though they don't often climb a few good, sturdy branches in the enclosure provides good enrichment and clutters the tank to make them feel safer, and they will use them especially if they are placed under a light or heat lamp for basking. In that note: new evidence is coming out that UV-B lighting and good infrared lamps are both beneficial to snakes, even the fossorial species, so providing those on the warm end of the enclosure is recommended where possible, or at least exposure of one side to natural lighting. Temperatures should be in the 70's to low 80's Fahrenheit with a hot spot of the upper 80's on average, and a winter hibernation period may also be beneficial to long-term health. These are ravenous snakes and can take quite large meals, though never exceed about 1.5 times the width of the thickest part of the snake in terms of the prey's dimensions, and watch to make sure you are not over-feeding; while they often just grow fast in response to frequent food when young, these snakes can also easily become overweight and this is best avoided. They should be thick animals, but muscular rather than just round and chunky. And frequent gentle handling is good to get them used to people. Every snake is an individual, and I've often heard this subspecies touted as one of the more cantankerously defensive pines, but so long as they are never given reason to see you as a threat, it generally should be simple to end up with an animal like Tsela: a bit skittish but inquisitive, calm, and a great animal to introduce people to the beauty and importance of these very rare animals.

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